Weathering, Soil Production, and Erosion Across Climatic and Tectonic Gradients

Monday, 15 December 2014: 1:40 PM
Kevin P Norton, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand and Isaac J Larsen, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, United States
Weathering is one of the fundamental processes that sustain life on our planet. Physical weathering breaks down rock for soil production and chemical weathering is thought to operate as the ultimate long-term negative feedback on atmospheric CO2 concentrations. There remains, however, uncertainty as to the relationship between chemical and physical weathering at very fast rates. If chemical weathering becomes kinetically limited at rapid erosion rates, as has been shown in a number of locations around the globe, then the fastest erosion rates will be associated with reduced chemical weathering. This has led to a debate as to whether tectonically active mountain ranges or rolling plains are the main source of CO2 drawdown through silicate weathering.
At the heart of this debate is the dearth of chemical weathering data at fast erosion rates. New cosmogenic nuclide-derived denudation rates from the West Coast of the New Zealand Southern Alps are among the fastest in the world and are linearly correlated with chemical weathering rates. The associated soil production rates reach an order of magnitude faster than previous estimates and far exceed the suggested maximum soil production rate. This suggests that very fast weathering and soil production is possible in such active landscapes and extreme climates. We investigate the controls on these rapid rates with a climate-driven soil production model. At the most basic level, soil production requires chemical weathering of primary minerals to secondary minerals. We apply soil production models with both exponential and hump-shaped dependencies on soil thickness. Mean annual temperature and precipitation are incorporated in the form of a modified Arrhenius equation that controls the maximum soil production rate.

When applied to the Southern Alps, the model predicts very rapid soil production that matches the magnitude of the cosmogenic nuclide-derived rates. High annual precipitation in the Southern Alps supports rapid soil generation through increased chemical weathering rates and extensive vegetation cover. When applied more broadly, the climate-dependent soil production model suggests that actively eroding mountain belts may display a linear relationship between weathering and erosion in strongly orographic settings, such as in New Zealand’s Southern Alps.